Now that Hollywood has tired of making movies about Vietnam (the war), the United States can more easily make amends with Vietnam (the country).
Emotions about a war that took the lives of 58,000 Americans and a million Vietnamese remain strong enough that they sometimes blur the vision of a natural bond between two nations that know each other very well.
This week, just before the 25th anniversary of the fall of Saigon, the US secretary of defense made a historic visit to Hanoi to scope out possible military ties with a former enemy. His visit follows a tentative agreement for open trade and other moves that point to a healing of the war's aftermath.
But both the US and Vietnam have reasons to avoid a warm embrace.
Americans are still coming to terms with the war. The popularity of former war prisoner John McCain showed that they want to feel better about a conflict that once tore the country apart.
And despite cooperation from the Communist leaders in Hanoi to search for the remains of lost US soldiers, some US leaders expect more. The US would also like to see less repression of religion and political dissent under Vietnam's one-party rule.
The leadership in Hanoi is wary of the US possibly meddling inside Vietnam at a time when the party lacks support and can't decide whether to fully open the economy to foreigners and end state control of major industries. The war in Kosovo heightened wariness of the US global role.
Hanoi also fears offending its historic enemy, China, by cozying up to the US with such moves as letting American warships pay a visit. For now, the US will only help Vietnam with such nonmilitary cooperation as clearing land mines or finding the remains of lost Vietnamese soldiers. It also would like to see Vietnam more fully involved with other Southeast Asian nations that oppose China's potential military thrust southward.
Still, it was quite a symbolic moment to see the military leaders of the two nations standing together this week while the Vietnamese Army band played the "Star-Spangled Banner" and goose-stepping soldiers marched by with the red flag of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.
That's a long way from the day in 1975 when the last US helicopter fled the embassy in Saigon.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society